Triggers and True Kindness

These days, merely uttering the word “triggered” is likely to trigger someone.

There are many who mock today’s tendency to give a “trigger alert.” I notice intense reactions of contempt among some of my fellow Christians. I have a hard time imagining Jesus showing the same scorn. He compassionately sought out those who were weak or wounded. He met them with tender love. He did not expect them to pull themselves together before he would allow them to belong or to follow him.

At the same time, Jesus did not preface his teachings with a “trigger alert.” In his parables and conversations, you can see him intentionally eliciting a reaction from his listeners. He skillfully provokes in order to uncover what needs healing, to awaken desire, to proclaim Good News, and to invite them into a covenantal relationship in which they can grow and bear fruit.

To be triggered is to experience a bigger reaction to a situation than one might normally expect. Amidst a sudden influx of images or bodily sensations, a trigger might elicit a flash of anger, a surge of sexual arousal, a pang of dread, a paralyzing anxiety, or a dissociative numbness.

And it happens so very quickly. Hence the term “trigger.” Much like a speeding bullet, our nervous system and limbic brain have the capacity to be launched into a life-or-death response.

The reaction happens first. Rational thinking may or may not follow, depending on the intensity of the reaction. The activation or the shutdown of our body begins in a fraction of a second. We are already mobilizing, fleeing, freezing, or going numb by the time our rational brain gets the memo a few seconds later – that is, if the memo even arrives. Survival is the priority when it comes to our body’s trauma responses.

Eight centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas noticed and reflected on these reactions that are common to all mammals. Deer who have memory of being hunted experience a swift reaction in the presence of humans. Our bodies and brains have a capacity to remember, to form associations, and to expect what will happen next. Without having access to the findings of neuroscience, Thomas was already observing the principle that “neurons that fire together wire together.”

In situations of threat, getting triggered is a marvelous asset. The speed and intensity of our reaction are the very thing that helps us get back to safety. In day-to-day relationships, triggers can be frustrating, as we go on hurting ourselves and the ones we love by any number of reactive behaviors: raising our voice, interrupting, berating, glaring, getting small, fawning, avoiding, withdrawing, isolating, going numb, turning to an addiction, etc.

Most of us wish we didn’t have these reactions. We wish they would just go away. Or we feel resentful at those who so insensitively trigger us. Yet every trigger is an opportunity to experience authentic connection, healing, and repair.

I began exploring my own triggers seven years ago, in my early months of healing and recovery. I remember that summer well, slowly reading Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They gave names to my behaviors and experiences. I didn’t always like it. It was painful to see how often I had been putting expectations on others and on myself, rather than acknowledging and feeling my deep and unmet needs. It was also liberating to tell the fuller truth. It opened up more and more curiosity.

Mark described triggers as an opportunity to be curious about my unmet needs, to become responsible for them, and to communicate about them – rather than expecting or demanding or resenting. Daily curiosity allowed me to notice and share with friends my various overreactions. Little by little, I grew in an awareness of what I was really feeling and needing. I noticed how present-day reactions were connected to my story.

Debbie described her preference to imagine triggers as “anointings” – meaning that we can welcome the anointing balm of the Holy Spirit any and every time we feel a strong reaction. That was such a lovely invitation, and one that I also started practicing.

There began in me a “thawing out” process. After decades of minimizing my feelings and needs, I began paying attention, allowing time and space and care. There’s a real challenge there – thawing out hurts!! Over time, I discovered new layers in my story – long years of loneliness and heartache that I had never fully felt. With the strong and tender presence of the Virgin Mary, my daily prayer became a time in which I could bring my daily triggers, allow myself to feel more of them, and welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was so painful and so consoling.

These experiences unfolded over months and eventually years. Scriptures began coming to life for me. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means I can allow myself to feel intense sensations in my gut, chest, or throat. I can welcome the Holy Spirit there. He can anoint me there. The very name “Christian” implies being a “christ” – being anointed as Jesus was anointed. Jesus promised that very anointing in the Beatitudes when he said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be paracleted.” (Matthew 5:4). I use the word “paracleted” in order to highlight the anointing of the Paraclete that soothes and encourages us whenever we are willing to experience our intense heartache and receive needed care.

Case in point: Just minutes ago, I received an unexpected and totally unwelcome interruption. It abruptly brought up all kinds of intense memories for me. So what did I do? I felt resentment and anger at the text message. I devoured an unhealthy snack, feeling shame as I ate it, along with the predictable and not-nearly-enough soothing sensation. Then I noticed myself just wanting to push through and move on. Then I felt the invitation to practice what I am preaching here. I took 5 minutes to lie down, allowing myself to feel more of it. I wept and shook and gasped for air. I realized how young I was feeling (like a 1-year old?). I realized how powerless and unprotected I had been feeling, and how familiar that was to my nervous system. I allowed time to receive comfort. I feel much more peace now.

Part of me feels frustrated at this “fragility” or that I still need so much. But if I tell the truth, what today required a 5-minute break would have set me in a rut for days or weeks in the past – and without me even being aware that I was triggered. The healing steps that I have already taken now give me a window of opportunity (usually) to notice and be aware, and to decide how to respond to the trigger. It’s a slow process that requires the faith of a child.

In healthy human development, as infants or toddlers or children, we have thousands and thousands of moments like the one I just had. Initially, that care comes from others; over time, we grow in our own capacity to notice what’s happening, to be resilient and resourceful, and to respond with good care and reasonable behavior.

As I get to know thousands of people’s stories, I am discovering an unpleasant reality. Most Americans I know did not experience myriads of moments of that kind of care as a child. We were more likely to be ignored, dismissed, judged, threatened, humiliated, attacked, or used. Many of us learned at a very young age either to keep our needs and feelings to ourselves, or that we will only get care if we perform or achieve, if we are dramatic or manipulative, or if we are giving something in exchange for it. We can expect as adults that it will take many thousands of moments of getting triggered, noticing our reaction with kindness, taking time to receive, and reconnecting. The alternative is to continue through life with unhealed wounds and unmet needs – which ultimately means remaining wounded people who wound people.

What about other people’s triggers? If we look at Jesus, we see grace and truth. Kindness seeks to heal ruptures, restore communion, and grow together in love. That requires a skillful combination of empathy and truth-telling. Jesus shows a marvelous awareness of what each person needs at a given moment. He neither backs away nor barges in. He loves them first, and then playfully engages their defenses, inviting them into more love and more truth.

To be oblivious or uncaring about what is obviously triggering to someone else is unkind or even cruel. But to expect others to tiptoe around my own triggers is egoistic and even abusive. I should know! I spent much of my life tiptoeing around others’ triggers. I’m learning that I don’t have to keep doing that. It helps neither me nor them. Their triggers and their needs are their responsibility, even if I genuinely care about them.

We all need people who care about what we need and feel, and who help us make sense out of life. Jesus needed that – and he experienced that! Not from most people, but from some.

Will we become again like little children? Will we admit and acknowledge the depths of our need, and be aware that those around us have their own stories and their own needs? Will we be responsible for our own needs and not expect others to do acrobatics around our tripwires?

May the true kindness of Jesus be an open invitation to each of us, in our own human growth, and in our relationships with one another.


My grandmother is 96. She is beginning to tell some rather interesting stories!

For several years already her sight and hearing have been failing, but that never stopped her from keeping informed of what was happening in the lives of family members. Once in a while, she would fill in the gaps with her own interpretation. It could be amusing or annoying, depending on her take. More recently, after years of being mentally sharp, she is showing signs of dementia – forgetting certain words, mixing up names, and – yes – telling some interesting stories. When she lacks certain pieces of the puzzle, she’s quite creative at filling in the gaps with her own narrative. And she sincerely believes her version of the story.

Her parish priest is from Poland, and four decades younger than she is. That doesn’t stop her from regaling me with stories of her long-deceased parents teaching him to speak Polish so well. This is an example of what neuroscientists call “confabulation.” It involves telling a false story while sincerely believing it to be true.

The human capacity to confabulate is by no means limited to those experiencing memory loss!

For example, I think of addicts chasing after a fix. Some of them go from church to church with a well-polished story, looking for a handout. The details of the story vary, but they invariably convey some heart-wrenching tragedy – “and all I need is __________ and my troubles will go away!” They get genuinely offended if you don’t believe their story. They have told it so often that, in the telling, they believe it themselves! You can, with skill and effort, expose them in an inconsistency or a lie. But it may not be kind or constructive to do so. They are likely to erupt with rage or blame, not at all liking the intense embarrassment and shame they are suddenly feeling amidst the exposure of untruth.

Another example is narcissism. There is increasing research linking narcissists with confabulation. In their deeply felt insecurity and shame, they exaggerate their achievements, or skillfully shift your attention away from their faults and failures. In the moment, they truly believe the falsehoods and distortions. If you have the wherewithal to cast light on the fuller truth, you are likely to pay for it!

I am also aware, in this age of social media and pop psychology, that “narcissism” is an overused term that is easily weaponized, without curiosity about the person or a desire to understand each human heart. What is labeled “narcissism” is actually a cluster of unpleasant or toxic behavioral symptoms, beneath which is cowering a terrified and ashamed little child who desperately wants to be loved.

 In my experience, we all have at least a little narcissism in us, because we all have shame lurking in the shadows, shame which we would rather avoid than face. We all have at least some moments in which we prefer to bypass uncomfortable memories or emotions, to live in denial, to minimize or downplay, to shade the truth, to omit relevant details, or to shift the focus onto someone else.

Confabulation is a common human experience because it emerges from a core human desire: to make sense out of what we are experiencing. Telling stories (some more true and some less true) is our go-to way of doing that.

Human beings are storytellers by nature. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly attempting to make sense out of what we are experiencing. Even when our bodies rest in sleep, our brain toils on in our dreams, attempting to put the pieces together.

I was fascinated reading Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, in which she described our almost irresistible urge to tell stories to ourselves– even false ones– in order to make sense of things. Drawing from her research, she shared that there is actually a dopamine release that motivates us:

“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. The brain recognizes the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain.

The story we tell ourselves with great certainty becomes an interpretive lens for our day-to-day experience of life. It colors our perceptions, our judgments, and eventually our decisions.

If Sally is convinced that nobody loves her, she will begin noticing every slight and seeing it as a confirmation of that “truth.” If Fred is intensely ashamed of how he has harmed a loved one, he will avoid lingering in that shame for very long. Perhaps he shifts the blame onto the one who questions him; perhaps he goes into self-punishment or profusely apologies – all ways of getting people to look away from his shame. But is he willing to talk about what it was really like? Is he willing to exchange the story he is telling himself for the fuller truth? That is where genuine humility and courage enter in.

For many years, the story I told myself was that I wasn’t trying hard enough or being good enough. I was the problem. I wasn’t willing or ready to face the truer story of my loneliness and sadness and shame – and how they got there in the first place. Or I told myself that other people would change, too afraid to confront their behaviors and tell them what it is like for me. I tolerated toxic behaviors and allowed my dignity to be stomped on. I just had to be kinder, and they would change. All the while the sensations in my body and my intuitive sense warned me: if I actually spoke the truth about how they were really behaving, they would definitely not be willing to talk about it, and would find ways to make me pay. As it turns out, my intuition was spot on. When I did speak truth, they were not willing to talk about their behaviors, and they did make me pay.

As I’ve pointed out before, on the Day of Judgment, my story and yours will be fully told – in all truth. Facing the fuller truth can be scary, but it is also liberating – allowing us to come out of the shadows and become a whole person.

Knowing our human tendency to confabulate, what can we do? Two great women come to mind for me.

One is Virginia, a parishioner in my former parish, who is my grandma’s age. Like grandma, Virginia always wanted to know what all is going on. But she also had a marvelous habit of going straight to the source before repeating a rumor. “What’s going on with ___________?” she would often ask me, having heard the church ladies confabulating. I would clear up the confusion, and she would nod with understanding and satisfaction. What a gift her wisdom and discipline were! But doing so required her to abide in that uncomfortable place of not knowing all the pieces, and resisting the dopamine fix that comes with imposing an interpretation on the facts.

The other woman that comes to mind is the Virgin Mary. The Gospels offer us glimpses into many moments of her life. In each of them, she was in the middle of an overwhelming and disorienting situation. God impregnated her, and she didn’t fully understand how. She prepared for birth having no idea where it would happen (and when it did happen, it was amidst farm animals, and her baby’s bed was the feeding trough). They were to flee into Egypt, without knowing how long. Her lost-and-found Son was in his Father’s house, but what does that really mean? The same Son, now 33, is being tortured and killed and buried – and all will be well – but how?

Again and again, Mary exemplifies a willingness to be in the middle of a great story, without yet having all the answers. She shows us that it is possible to abide and wait for the conflict to be resolved, resisting the false satisfaction of confabulation. She was willing – repeatedly – to have her narrative disrupted and to be reoriented toward a bigger and better horizon. She is the preeminent model of humility and courage. She was eager to embrace a fuller and fuller truth because she was always allowing herself to be embraced by that Truth.

What are the ways that you and I tend to confabulate? What are the painful truths that we would rather not admit? In what ways are we still in the middle of a story, with no idea how the tension will be resolved? Can we watch and wait in Hope?

The invitation is there for all of us!

Certainty ≠ Truth

Certainty can be one of the greatest obstacles to Truth.

That claim may shock many Christians, who feel like they are clutching tenaciously to what little certainty remains in our tumultuous times. But certainty and Truth are not the same thing. When we demand or cling to certainty, our quest for Truth gets abandoned, and the Truth gets lost or distorted.

Have you ever had a moment of reckoning – a moment in which your tightly-held certainty was shattered upon the rock of reality?

My older sister never tires of reminding me of my own six-year-old clinging to certainty. My favorite show at the time was The Price is Right – only I insisted quite emphatically that it was called “Win a Car.” No amount of argumentation on her part could sway me. I had often viewed the latter half of the show at my grandparents’ house after kindergarten. I watched contestant after contestant win a car – or be foiled in the attempt.

And then came my reckoning. I passed by the television one summer morning, saw the flashing lights, and heard the familiar voice of Rod Roddy: “Here it comes! Television’s most exciting hour of fantastic prizes! The fabulous, sixty-minute PRICE IS RIGHT!”

Rod called down the first four contestants, and informed them that they were the first contestants on The Price is Right. And those same words appeared on the screen, tiny at first, but swelling until they filled the screen. I stood agape, stunned at my error. I had been so certain – so very certain.

Reality changes us – if we allow it to. Hopefully reality changes us not just once, but day after day. With childlike wonder, we discover new depths of the mystery. The more we know, the more we desire to know. Authentic growth in wisdom actually yields more wonder and more desire, not less. Those who are wise recognize how little they know and understand.

Such was the wisdom of Socrates in the face of his accusers. When he didn’t know something, he at least knew that he didn’t know. He was not puffed up with false certitude. Such was the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, who stated that “an article of faith is a glimpse of divine Truth tending towards that Truth” (ST II-II, q. 1, a. 6, sc). Catching a glimpse of Truth is different than possessing it with certainty. Those who catch a glimpse of something they truly care about feel an ache to seek more.

In describing faith, Thomas reminds us that our faith does not point to the proposition, but to the reality itself (ST II-II, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2). And perhaps most shocking of all, Thomas asserts that our knowledge of God is a knowledge what he is not, but that what he is remains utterly unknown to us (SCG c. 3, 49, 9).

Thomas Aquinas is not a relativist, and neither am I. But he is even more a mystic than a theologian. He intuitively understands that God is infinite. The closer we get to him, the more painfully we realize the infinite gap between him and us – a gap bridged not by intellectual comprehension or certainty, but only in a communion of love in the new and eternal covenant.

Jesus Christ presents himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He invites us to enter into a relationship with him and to follow him as disciples. Through faith, we become fellow members of his Body. We begin an ongoing journey of conversion, in which we become changed more and more into him. He invites us into communion with him and his Father. He prays that all that is his will be ours. He invites us as his bride into a one-flesh union with him. We are invited to grow into that union throughout our life.

Our demand for certainty comes from our insecure hearts. To feel insecure is one of the most difficult human experiences. The solution to not the “certainty” of Christian fundamentalism, but the intimacy of communion, and the security that is received in that relationship.

The Truth is not relative, but it IS relational. I love studying ancient and medieval philosophy, and find enormous wisdom there. That great legacy of Truth-seeking did not happen in a vacuum. It happened within the context of community. It is only within secure relationships, and in respectful dialogue with fellow humans, that we can pursue the Truth – never as isolated individuals, but as fellow children of God.

There are two opposite errors here: relativism and fundamentalism. Each in its own way refuses to surrender to reality. Relativism dogmatically asserts that there is no Truth. Those who cling to relativism ultimately refuse to allow reality to change them. They also ultimately refuse to give themselves over in a loving communion with the living God who holds all the answers to our ultimate questions.

But fundamentalism, too, is an enemy of Truth. It pretends to offer total certainty about “the truth” in a way that kills curiosity and wonder – the gifts of God that truly draw us into his Truth. There is a vulnerability and a playful engagement in the curiosity of a child. The “certainty” of fundamentalism exchanges a vulnerable relationship with the living God for an illusory sense of control.

The obsession with certainty has been particularly strong in the modern era (the last few centuries). It shows up in both Catholic and Protestant circles in some form of fundamentalism. We see this clinging to certainty it in the “once saved always saved” approach of some Protestants. We see it in an exaggerated emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture or the infallibility of the pope. I believe in both of those doctrines as far as they go – but I find that most Christians seriously misunderstand or misrepresent them! Insofar as they point us to divine Truth, both are at the service of the living and enduring Word of God, who is a person inviting us into covenantal relationship with himself and his Father.

Through faith, we share in the dying and rising of Jesus. We are securely loved as God’s children, and are able to grow into maturity in Christ. With childlike wonder and curiosity, we can humbly acknowledge and keep surrendering to a Truth that is always larger than us. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” May we never allow the temptation of certainty to hinder us from the great invitation of the eternal Bridegroom: “Come further up! Come further in!”

Purity Culture – Conclusion

This is the fifth and final installment of my reflections on the “purity culture” often found in Christian homes and churches. Out of fear that young people will be corrupted by the sex-obsessed culture, we sometimes miss the mark ourselves. We link shame and sexual desire together in ways God never intended; we abdicate our responsibility of providing apprenticeship in chastity; or we model a moralistic self-righteousness rather than humble growth and fruitfulness. Perhaps the biggest mistake is turning “purity” exclusively into a moral issue and/or a sexual issue. That is certainly not the biblical view nor the Catholic view.

Lie #5“Purity” is mainly about sexual morality

In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:7). Isn’t it interesting that most American Christians hear these words and instantly imagine sexual morality?

Yes, Jesus proceeds to address adultery and lust in the subsequent chapters. But he also addresses murder, aggression, anger, unforgiveness, and greed. He teaches about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He invites us to seek first the Kingdom of God, and in so doing to persevere in seeking, asking, and knocking.

Above all else, Jesus speaks from start to finish about a relationship with God the Father. He invites us into communion. He desires us to be “blessed” by our Father, who sent his own Son to die for us while we were yet sinners. We do not and cannot earn our way into relationship by good conduct. We enter our covenant with God as ones who are poor in spirit; grieving and mourning, meek and humble; aching with hunger and thirst. Jesus knows that we will be presenting broken lives to God for mending.  Purity of heart means bringing God all of the scattered pieces of our shattered hearts! It is then that real growth can begin.

In other words, when Jesus speaks of being “pure in heart,” he is inviting us to be wholly and wholeheartedly consecrated to God. That means allowing every dimension of our being to be blessed by him. It is the opposite of hiding away pieces of ourselves in shame! It was the devil who tried to convince Adam and Eve to run and hide after they had disobeyed God.

Toxic shame is perhaps the single greatest obstacle that keeps us from letting ourselves (ALL of ourselves) be loved by God and others. Many of us are more susceptible to shame because we learned to tie performance and relationships together: “I am only lovable if…” or “I am only lovable when…” To the extent that those lies have purchase in our hearts, Christian morality becomes a torment rather than Good News.

The urge to hide ourselves is challenging enough when we feel shame over moral faults. But the devil has worked still greater harm in many of us. In moments of betrayal, abuse, abandonment, or neglect, he has crept in and whispered lies – convincing us to hold contempt toward our desires, our bodies, our sexuality, or our capacity for delight. We then enter a false battle for “purity” – trying to rid ourselves of that which is best in us! If we feel shame every time we feel desire, how can we grow in healthy relationships? Hiding ourselves does not lead to intimacy.

Our shame can be healed by moving away from hiding and towards relationships: becoming truly and safely seen, known, heard, understood, and cherished – not some idealized version of ourselves, but as we currently are, a work in progress.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2518) speaks of purity of heart as a threefold sharing in God’s purity: in our charity, our chastity, and our orthodox belief. In other words, we are created to share in divine Goodness, divine Beauty, and divine Truth.

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – the human heart has an almost insatiable longing for all three! The devil HATES this longing in us, but cannot erase it. So he attempts to divert and distract us away from the intimacy of relationship that is at the core of all three.

Our intellects are ordered to the Truth. Purity of heart includes surrendering to the Truth whenever the evidence is in front of us. The humble heart is willing to be proven wrong – or incomplete. The arrogant heart resists the vulnerability of surrender – either through obstinate refusal to believe what God has revealed or through a dogmatism that thinks it knows everything – as though Truth is an object we could possess. The closer we get to divine Truth, the more we realize how little we truly know!

Our wills are ordered to Goodness. We long to love and be loved. And so God commands us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is a two-way street: freely receiving and freely giving. Growing in purity of heart includes recognizing any ways in which we are blocked – either in giving or receiving. The more we love, the greater our ache to become more God-like in our love.

Our ache for Beauty flows from both our intellect and our will. Here we find the intense desire of eros that is such a glorious divine gift. No wonder the devil tries so hard to ruin it! Early and often, he entices us to curse our desire for Beauty – to feel shame around this God-given longing.

Yes, our desires often run wild – overindulging in food, becoming possessive in relationships, or wandering into sexual fantasies. That is why the Catechism speaks of “apprenticeship” in chastity. There is an appropriate pruning or discipline – not for the sake of cutting off desire, but of fully claiming it.

The word “purity” is first and foremost about our relationship with God –with sexuality as only one dimension. It is a damaging distortion to use “purity” in a moralistic sense. Instead, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes ten full paragraphs to the much more helpful words “integrity” and “integrality” (see nn. 2338-2347). Little by little, we learn how to put all the pieces together, aided by healthy relationships with God and others.

Becoming a whole person in our sexuality, our desires, our emotions, and our relationships is not a matter of “on” or “off,” maintaining or losing. It is a lifelong task. The Catechism proclaims this integration to be “a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life” (n. 2342).

We are called to keep growing in charity, chastity, and truth our whole life long. The more we grow, the more we will long to grow. Getting a taste of God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is described by many of the mystics as a “wound” – but in this case a wound of love that keeps us coming back to our lover for more. Once we begin tasting from the spring of living waters, our thirst for God intensifies. We desire more; we ache; we taste; we desire; and so the cycle of growth continues.

Apart from those living waters, we wither and die. If we only bring parts of ourselves to the living waters, the relationship will remain impartial and restricted. God desires ALL of us. The mystics desire ALL of him. Unlike lust, however, there is no devouring here. Jesus and his bride become one flesh, in a way that causes both to flourish. Every healthy and holy human relationship imitates that heavenly nuptial union. It is indeed a daunting and lifelong task to keep maturing in imitation of Christ. We need not shame ourselves or others in the process, but allow the kindness of God to keep spurring us on to deeper repentance.

Savoring and Our Resistance

What is it like for you to savor? I’m not just talking about delicious food, but any profound experience of beauty or goodness or truth. When I look into myself and others, I find that it’s surprisingly hard to stay in the present moment and savor.

We can consume and devour, insatiably wanting more, ruining ourselves or others in our gluttony or greed or lust. When we do so, there might be a flitting moment of pleasure, but no joy. More often, we do not allow ourselves even to be in the present moment. Rather, we numb ourselves and live a disembodied existence – buried in work, binging on pleasures, or staring at a screen. We find it easier to be passive spectators than actively engaged children of God. After all, we have no skin in the game when we watch the news, distract ourselves with sports, play video games, or scroll through social media.

Meanwhile, God is always seeking to allure us and amaze us with experiences of truth and goodness and beauty. What is it like to slow down and take in the honor and delight of these moments? Not to take a picture and post it on social media – but just to savor?

I struggle to savor, even though I recognize that God has gifted me with a heart that intensely delights in truth and goodness and beauty. I perceive his handiwork in places that others often don’t. Yet it’s a gift that I resist. I’m starting to understand why: I’m afraid to suffer.

When I discover a surprising new truth, I feel an intense arousal and delight, followed by even more longing. It’s as though I am four years old again. I have such an eagerness to discover the truth and surrender myself to it. If I allow myself to stay in the experience, I’ll desire to keep learning more. I’ll ask “why?” a thousand different ways. I will eventually reach moments of disappointment or sadness. I may feel alone or rejected in a mocking world that doesn’t allow time or space for such questioning. For sure, I’ll discover the limits of human knowledge. No matter how much I learn, there will always be more that I don’t know. Savoring means tolerating both the intense joy of learning and the ache of not-yet knowing.

When I stumble on human goodness, I easily cry. It can be an inspiring scene in a movie or a book. It can be a heroic moment in the everyday life of a person that I’ve known for years. Suddenly I catch of glimpse of God’s goodness blazing brightly, and the tears flow. I feel intense joy and gratitude. I feel regret for not having noticed and delighted in this goodness before. I feel that painful ache – an ache for this person’s goodness to be celebrated, an ache for more goodness in myself and others. In the depths of my heart, I long to give myself freely and wholeheartedly in sacrifice. Yet so many other parts of me are terrified of feeling vulnerable and unprotected. I resist a tenderhearted trust in God for fear of what might happen. I readily relate to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the first half of the story, but not yet in the second. I can be with him lying prostrate on the earth, begging the Father to let the cup pass. I desire also to be like Jesus standing with strength and willingly giving himself over to Judas and the mob. But I resist the vulnerability involved, and often find myself like the turtle yanking his head back into the shell – even when the shell is starting to rot on the inside.

I see beauty every day, when I take the time to notice it. Too often I feel an urge to rush past it, telling myself that I don’t have time to savor it today. When I do pause to take it in, there is so much praise and delight in my soul – and again that longing, that ache, that sense of the eternal Beauty that cannot be contained in this passing world. My intuition knows that this moment of beauty is only a glimpse, and that it is going to fade. There is such a mixture of sweetness and sadness there. It feels easier just to avoid the ache by avoiding the intensity of the beauty.

Yes, even though God created my heart for truth and goodness and beauty, I sometimes resist those experiences. I consume and devour, rather than slow down and savor. I rush on to the next thing, rather than pause and delight. I gravitate towards “rest” that is actually disengagement and numbing out – disconnecting from my five senses and my body rather than being more intensely present in the moment. It takes emotional and spiritual effort to rest in an embodied way, even when I have the time.

I experienced this resistance the other day in the face of a spectacular winter sunset. It was a Sunday evening after a very full week of work, including several overwhelming moments of frustration, powerlessness, anger, anxiety, fear, and shame. I just wanted to “chill” or “veg out,” as we often say. I turned to look around just as I was about to enter my house, and saw the entire western horizon painted with a dozen contrasting shades, all reflecting upon the ice and snow. And I just wanted to go inside and veg out. I fought an intense spiritual battle just to stand there for fifteen minutes. I kept feeling an urge to exit the scene, to pull out my phone, or to go in the house and move on to the next thing. But a wiser and deeper voice within me told me to stay and to savor.

I wept.

I wept at the stunning beauty. I wept over the resistance within my heart. I felt shame and frustration. My heavenly Father doesn’t mind my sins and struggles, but sometimes I cannot stand them.

We resist savoring because we don’t want to suffer; we don’t want to die; and we most definitely do not want to wait in hope – all the while feeling the painful longing of the “not yet.”

Isn’t it interesting that we sabotage our deepest longings? Part of us would rather be disembodied and joyless than fully alive with our five senses in the present moment. It is often the artist, the poet, the prophet, or the saint who calls us to our senses. I think of the intense delight and praise of Francis of Assisi as he savored God’s creation – all the while suffering in his longing to rebuild Christ’s Church. I think of the words of the poet T.S. Eliot in the early 20th Century: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” We prefer to be “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Rather than desire and dream and risk, we will settle for “living and partly living.”

God has created us for so much more, and he sent his own Son to awaken these desires in our heart. The child Jesus will awaken these longings that his Father has placed in our heart. It’s a dangerous undertaking that will lead both him and us through suffering and death – and to eternal life. Will we follow?

Shame and The Day of Judgment

During this month of November, the Church’s liturgy (together with nature all around us) invites our hearts to consider the realities of death and judgment – events we prefer not to ponder, especially in our culture of comfort and hedonistic escapes.

The monks of the Middle Ages left us with a haunting, yet stunningly beautiful hymn entitled the Dies Irae, which proclaims that the Day of Judgment is at hand, and urges us to cast our hopes of salvation on Jesus Christ, as he resurrects us and tells the true story of our lives.

In elegant Latin verse, the hymn summarizes that great and dreadful Day: the world as we know it will be dissolved into ashes, the trumpet will sound, and all the dead will be raised from their tombs. Death itself and all of nature will stand agape as the Just One assembles us all before his throne. The written book will be brought forth, in which all is contained, and the stories of that book will be told publicly for all to hear. Whatever has remained hidden will be proclaimed openly. My true story and yours will be told in all fullness

At first blush, the thought of my full story being told for all to hear, full and unabridged, is utterly terrifying. When I tell my story to others, I get to pick and choose what they hear, to keep certain things in and leave other things out, to shade things my way. Not so on the Day of Judgment. My truth is my truth.

But I am learning that, rather than being a day of deep shame, the Day of Judgment (if I desire it) will actually be a day on which I am definitively healed from my shame. The very shame that fills me with dread at the thought of being seen and known is the very shame that needs to be brought to the light of day, indeed, to the light of The Day so often promised in Scripture. Until I am fully seen and fully known, I cannot truly be myself.

Is the Day of Judgment not a Day whose coming we pray for daily? Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come!” Many Christians often pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” – in words that echo the last words of the Bible: marana tha (“Our Lord, come!”). If he does not come with the fullness of his truth and love, we will never become our truest and deepest selves. We will remain less than fully human.

Shame is a heavy burden, and one with which I am quite familiar. I have spent most of my life finding ways to hide my true self from others. As an infant, as a child, as an adolescent, and beyond, I learned to hide what I was really feeling (shame, sadness, loneliness, or anger). I even pretended for many years like I didn’t have those feelings at all! I learned to be “independent” and self-reliant, pretending like I didn’t need anything from others. Needing others felt shameful. Reaching out for kindness and support felt uncertain and unsafe. And all the while a deep and painful loneliness grew – undetected for many years because it was the ocean in which I was swimming for so long.

In my hiding, I developed a vast array of subtle (or not-so-subtle) defenses that proved highly effective in keeping other people from having access to my truest, deepest self. What a bind that creates! My inner self continues (as God made me) to desire deeply to be seen and known and understood and accepted for who I really am – yet the moment good people actually draw near, I still tend to react in ways that keep them at a distance. I put on one kind of mask or the other, so they can’t see the real me.

Then, of course, there are my many sins – all the ways, over the years, in which I have stumbled in my ungodly self-reliance and self-protection; the harm I have caused to others and to self; the rupture to relationships. There are my darkest or most twisted fantasies – the “if only…” thoughts or urges that I like to pretend are not really there. How could I possibly look forward to those being proclaimed publicly on the Day of Judgment?

The Dies Irae provides the answer to all this anguish after it asks similar questions. What am I to do, poor wretch that I am, in the face of so great a Judge, before whom even the just cannot be secure? Is there anyone who can plead for me on that Day?

Yes. The King of Majesty will plead for me. He freely and gratuitously saves those who desire salvation. He longs to save me.

The hymn proceeds to tell the ultimate story, the definitive story – the story of Jesus, who though divine, freely and willingly emptied himself, became one of us, and saved us in his Passion and Resurrection. When my story is perfectly united to his story, every moment of my life has new meaning. All my masks can be removed and laid to rest, my true self can be seen, and all can hear my full story – a story redeemed and transformed by Jesus. When my story is told, all can hear how Jesus was there at every moment – especially the moments of greatest heartache, heartbreak, and shame, moments in which I was betrayed, moments in which I betrayed others. All the while he was attuning to my heart, and gazing upon me with love and kindness as a beloved child of his Father. He was suffering with me and for me, weeping with me, breathing life into me, and rejoicing with me.

When we talk about dying with Christ and rising with Christ, it is so much more than a cliché! We prefer to compartmentalize, and lock away certain parts of our story. But that means leaving them unredeemed, and it means not being a whole person in Christ. Only when we allow him, the Alpha and the Omega, the true author of all human history, to take authority over all these shards and fragments, can we find ultimate resolution to the discord in our story. That means going down with him into the dark places and allowing him to shine forth with his love and truth. We all have memories in which (if we are honest) we do not truly believe that God is good. Jesus surprises us with the new life of his resurrection, and opens us to be loved even in those memories in which we feel unlovable. We don’t have to hide.

The Dies Irae has many dark notes in it, and is a beautiful hymn. It ends with stunning trust and hope in the one who loves us and so empowers us to be just and holy. Perhaps the book that will be opened on the Day of Judgment will be more like a book of music. Each of our songs will be sung. No doubt, there will be many discordant measures, bearing witness to our darkest days. But if I give Jesus permission to tell my story, it will be a song that gives great glory to God. And all those assembled will only be able to sing a resounding “AMEN!” in response – for he is Truth itself.


P.S. – This piece by the CBC explores the vast musical influence of the Dies Irae over the centuries.